The series of tubes is out of control

Yesterday, I woke up to a bunch of comment notifications on a post I’d written about pneumatic tubes and the postal service in France on Active Social Plastic, my other blog. My first thought was, “Uh oh. Spam.” (There’s an inferiority complex for you.) It turned out that Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing had linked to my post. It was heartening and inspired me to update more of the paper I’m writing right now about the birth of the pneumatic post in Paris.

If only academic writing were as easy as a blog post, or for that matter, a paper proposal for a conference. The pneumatic tubes paper seems to be about everything and nothing. On one hand, it’s good that this is the case: it’s likely a dissertation topic or subject for a book. On the other hand, what part should be the focus? Is it the specific interfaces for the network? Is it the fact that it was supposed to be auxiliary and yet reflected a massive expenditure and outlay? Is it about economies of scale and the introduction of other products and services in the communication economy, like parcel post and banking? To what extent is it about the failures and promises of telegraph? Should I write it as an argument or as a narrative? How should I undergird it other architectural historical arguments or theories, like Sigfried Giedion on the importance of iron in 19th century as the subconscious formation of architecture? And what about Walter Benjamin? What about the concept of the image?

I’m writing the tubes paper for a class on Walter Benjamin, “Image, Interior, Archive,” taught by Brigid Doherty. The class took on the Arcades Project and a number of Benjamin’s other writings. Brigid is an outstanding professor, razor sharp and intense. I started keeping near transcripts of what she said in class in order to revisit it later: she delivers so much information when she speaks. This is not unintimidating. Add to it the fact that she, along with Tom Levin and Michael Jennings in the German department at Princeton, are among the foremost translators, scholars and interpreters of Benjamin. The three of them just published the Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, a new translation of that essay and other published and unpublished works. It’s even the second class I’ve taken on Benjamin and the Arcades — I took the first one my first year of graduate school with Henry Sussman (who’s like the Howard Rheingold of comparative literature and media). I could probably take five more classes on it and never get to the heart of it, it’s so intense a work. Anyway.

Today, I need to find the thread of this paper. I write 2000 words, only to throw away 1000. My sources are in French, which slows me down. There’s always more I could research and look for but I somehow need 20 or so pages on one thing. This part is the hardest part.

Paper writing time

The way things work in my PhD program, we have a 12-week semester and then we write research papers. The papers aren’t generally due within the semester. In the winter, we hand them in in January, during the reading period.

I’m firmly in the middle of that period right now. So far, it’s going well. I’m writing a paper about urban pneumatic tube networks and I’ve been working on a more theoretical angle that ties in Sigfried Giedion and Walter Benjamin, as well as some more contemporary information theory. I’m not convinced about how I’m going about it so far but I’ll feel much more comfortable when I start writing about the network itself. It surprises me to find myself writing my second paper on some aspect of 19th century Paris and its architecture and urban infrastructure, but it turns out to be the most interesting case study. I’m one of the few people I know who doesn’t love Paris: I find it overwhelming. (I like Berlin better, but you probably know this about me.) At any rate, it’s harder to study things that I love. Either that, or I might be discovering I really like Paris’s subterranean wackiness and its unwavering devotion to its networks.

Two things are hard about the papers: the slog and the self-doubt. My first PhD student paper ballooned to 50 pages with no end in sight. It turned out there was no central argument. Now, I carry around a book called The Craft of Research, suggested to me by my undergraduate professor Lew Friedland, to remind me how to structure arguments when I get lost in things. Academic writing is hard and it’s scary to admit that. It does not come naturally to me. I spent years trying to write clearly and simply, and while I try to do that in my papers, I need to construct more complex arguments than anything in the Web or the design world asked of me. Last year, I collapsed into tears after 8 hours in Marquand Library, where food and drink are not allowed. It didn’t help that I didn’t eat as I worked on my paper about Xanti Schawinsky and that I really needed something to keep my blood sugar stable. By the end of the three papers I had to write, I was dejected and exhausted.

For obvious reasons, I’m trying to keep that from happening this year. I’m getting enough sleep, setting page limits (Cory’s recent tips helped), giving myself small rewards, eating properly, exercising, even. I’m hoping to make it through without dissolving in a self-loathing mass.

girlwonder is back

Let me start this entry simply. I miss girlwonder.

I’ve done less personal and public writing in the 3 1/2 years since I started graduate school. That feels like a long time. A year ago, I started Active Social Plastic to think about things related to my intellectual pursuits, but it’s not quite the same. I hold it up to the kind of expectation I have for my academic work, which makes it less fun. It feels like work.

Part of the reason I stopped writing on girlwonder is structural: I very quickly had to move the site off server where it had been posted and have never been able to reimport the posts. It also coincided with the period when I began teaching undergraduates. Do I really want them knowing about my bouts of depression or my ex-boyfriend woes from 5 years ago? Not really. Some of it has to do with the intensity of school, especially in my first year. Everything was so very intense, it felt almost impossible to communicate it outside of the five people in my class, the other students in the school and the handful of professors I worked with closely.

That’s not to say I didn’t try. I created a blog on Vox, which allowed me to post privately to friends when I wanted. In the meantime, Facebook exploded and I began using Twitter. My Twitter stream is private; I have 1500+ contacts on Facebook. Is there anywhere where I can say anything about how I feel and what I think? I’ve decided I’d like to try and yet, I can’t really explain why I want to do it. Perhaps it’s as simple as wanting my own room to decorate as I please. ¬†Things are different now than when I first started a personal site some 15 (!) years ago. At that point in time, the public online was small. When I wrote about how I hated my job in 1996, my coworkers weren’t reading it. Now, I must assume that my future academic employers, my fellow students, and the students I teach will all read this. (Twitter’s the place for my snarky comments since I control who reads what I post and trust me, there are plenty.) For several years, I’ve felt like I really can’t say anything of any mettle online, unless it’s in a private community: too much can be taken out of context too late. And that happens, anyway, over drinks and at dinner, not just online

What I’m curious about is being able to write again in a way that doesn’t feel like work. I’d like to try this other outlet for a while, too, and see what happens. So hello again, and welcome to Girlwonder, the personal blog, or website, or even homepage of one Molly Wright Steenson, age 37.

Final review at 1:30 — done!

Please to cross your fingers for me, to send good thoughts, to wish me well. At 1:30, I give my final semester presentation. It’s been an exhausting week, between long papers and my first Ph.D. application (and more than that–I’ll post later).

But. Think well of me at 1:30. This is the most exhausting presentation I do each semester. It’s scary. I hope it goes well.


It was okay but not great — because right now, my thesis is at a not great point.

The good part of things were our critics: it was a great jury. As visitors, we had Hadas Steiner from SUNY-Buffalo, who works on architecture, technology and the neo-avant-garde (way relevant for me), and Spyros Papapetros, a Germanist from Princeton, who we had met during our visit there in November (he published a translation of Siegfried Ebeling’s 1926 Raum als Membran — Space as Membrane — in a recent publication and I flipped out: I’ve been looking for it for a decade.) They were both terrific–very thoughtful and played off each other nicely. Also, our beloved chaired visitor, Kurt Forster (who chaired the 2004 Venice Architecture Biennale) joined us, one of my favorite characters. He had many useful, thoughtful things to contribute. Overall, the other people on our committee were both supportive and appropriately challenging. I think the first year students got better feedback than we did a year ago, but they had prepared for weeks for the presentation.

It is obvious to me how much work I have to do. As he was leaving, Emmanuel (my advisor) told me and Federica, “Do not be afraid of criticism.” He went on to say that the criticism would never stop. Maybe it was just a Luxemburgian moment of nihilism, but I appreciated his comments. The thing is, from the very first time Nick Tangborn tore my review of the “Tubular Bells” remix to shreds in 1992, I’ve not really been afraid of it. When you write it, it’s no longer yours. If someone edits it or gives you criticism, your work gets better.

But. My work needs a lot of work. I need a heavy handed editor and some help finding direction for the rest of this project. I’m tired out right now and I don’t know which way it should go. I had an illuminating conversation in the bathroom, of all places, with Peggy Deamer, the (departing) associate dean and the faculty’s theory torchbearer. This afternoon, I’ll talk to Emmanuel again and I hope to at least figure out what to focus on over the holidays.

Time and braveness

Use time well.

Use time creatively.

Don’t trap time.

Don’t let time slip away.

Don’t be scared.

Be brave.

This quote from Cedric Price Opera is in the Jude Kelly section on page 87. I’m not sure whether she said it but rather hope Cedric Price instead did.

Kind words for me, as I write about Cedric’s GENERATOR project, the subject of my thesis…